Who's Really a Real Republican?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

DEPT. OF GOP ANGST

Who's Really a Real Republican?

Mitt Romney created a stir over the weekend with his assertion that he speaks for "the Republican wing of the Republican Party." His comment drew a swift rebuke from Sen. John McCain, who challenged the former Massachusetts governor's conservative credentials. But Romney may have raised a more pertinent question: Just what is the Republican wing of the Republican Party?

Romney did not intend to set off a discussion about the future of the GOP. His goal was more practical: to separate himself from his most worrisome rival, Rudy Giuliani, by claiming he represents the party's mainstream values in a way that the socially liberal former mayor of New York cannot.

Then McCain intruded on the Romney-Giuliani spat, citing Romney's checkered Republican past to question whether he should be trusted to lead the party in 2008. He noted that Romney had contributed money to a Democratic Senate candidate in 1992, had voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 presidential primary, had failed to endorse the Republicans' Contract With America as a Senate candidate in 1994 and had distanced himself from the Reagan years in that same campaign.

"So you'll understand why I'm a little perplexed when Mitt Romney now suggests that he's a better Republican than me, or that he speaks for the Republican wing of the Republican Party," McCain said.

Not to be outdone by Romney, Fred Thompson jumped into the argument last night in a speech to the New York Conservative Party. Alluding to Giuliani, he said Republicans cannot win by trying to be more like the Democrats. "I believe that conservatives beat liberals only when we challenge their outdated positions, not embrace them," he said in prepared remarks. But he also said this is no time for "philosophical flexibility" -- an apparent reference to Romney's shifts on abortion and other issues. "With me, what you see is what you get. I was a proud conservative yesterday, I remain one today, and I will be one tomorrow," he said.

This argument will continue until Republican voters start to bring some clarity to what remains a muddled and unpredictable nomination battle. The question of the party's future, however, will fall squarely on the shoulders of the candidate who emerges victorious: What kind of party will he inherit?

That this is a troubled time for Republicans is evident by the vigorous debate on the right about the future of conservatism. George W. Bush's presidency and the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 have left party leaders and intellectuals to debate the question of what's next for the GOP. As former White House official Pete Wehner and Yuval Levin put it in a recent article in the New York Sun, "Conservatives today are in a funk."

That leaves it to the presidential candidates to define the future, but their efforts to date have been tentative, with most of the contenders making rhetorical attempts to return to Reaganism while dealing with a world that has changed dramatically since Ronald Reagan left office almost 20 years ago.

Romney speaks of the Republican coalition as a three-legged stool of conservatism: economic, security and family values. Giuliani, he argues, represents only the first two and therefore is attempting to lead an unstable coalition that ultimately will lead the GOP to defeat and disillusionment. But as McCain notes, Romney's conservative bona fides are questionable.

Giuliani hopes to appeal to religious and social conservatives by encouraging them to look past differences over abortion and gay rights, a risky strategy that nonetheless has worked better than his doubters anticipated six months ago. His nomination would represent a dramatic reordering of the party that has enjoyed much success the past two decades.

McCain questions whether either Romney or Giuliani fully represents the party of Reagan, but his own maverick style of the past makes him suspect to many in the coalition. Would conservatives really trust McCain were he to become president? It's doubtful.


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